We recently attended Connect Pacific Northwest in Boise, Idaho and heard from Justin Skeesuck who taught about the Multiplier Effect and how it relates to accessibility in your events. My takeaway from this important talk was: If you exclude one person, you are also losing 4-5 additional attendees who might be connected with that person. Photo from official website of the speaker.
Everyone says, “I want to throw the best event ever!” and that means making events more inclusive. If your attendees feel unwelcome or left out, your event is falling short. Here are 6 ways you might be making attendees feel unwelcome, and how you can fix that. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive or definitive list. We welcome your input and additions in the comments if you have the time.
The menu. (Including alcohol)
Gone are the days of the rubber-chicken conference dinner or surf-and-turf-for-all. Today’s event attendees are health-minded, from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and care about the environment, animal welfare, and where their food comes from. Food is the centerpiece of any gathering, and if the foods you offer at your event do not serve all of your attendees, they’ll feel left out and unwelcome. Check out this blog post, written by EJP Events’s resident vegetarian and Marketing Events Assistant, Shawn Granton, for some examples.
Are you preparing for attendees who avoid animal products; follow diets based on their faith, such as Kosher or Halal; or have sensitivities to any of the nine major food allergens? If not, you should! And to do so, you’ll want to ask, in your registration form, whether or not your attendee has any dietary preferences (I prefer the word “preferences” rather than “restrictions,” which can sound negative). You also want to make sure you’re working closely with your caterer and venue — even before signing the contract — to make sure they can prepare the foods your attendees want within your budget.
Don’t forget alcohol! As we talk more and more about mental health and overall wellness, we need to bring this into our events too. Not every attendee is excited about an open bar. Indeed, being around a lot of alcohol can present problems both for individuals on a recovery path as well as for organizations who want to promote healthy choices and professionalism. Make sure you are designing your event not just for different dietary needs, but also including those who make the choice to avoid or reduce alcohol consumption. Here’s a recent blog post we wrote about Dry January and how that thinking is coming into how events are planned.
There’s nothing worse than getting to an exciting event you’ve been looking forward to, and finding out it’s a literal pain to get there. Think about the last time you had to walk what felt like miles inside a giant venue to find the restroom, or when you finally got there, only to find it was cramped or poorly appointed. Now imagine being a wheelchair user, someone on crutches, or a person with any other kind of mobility challenge, and you can see how the problem gets much worse. All of us are one accident away from disability, and if we’re lucky enough to grow old, we’ll all need accessibility accommodations at some point in our lives. Again, ask your attendees when they register what their needs and preferences are. “What accommodations, if any, would make it easy for you to attend this event?” is one example of how you can ask. And again, start asking your planning and logistics questions BEFORE you book your venue. One important one is “Are there ramps for a wheelchair-using speaker to get to the stage?” You can find a good resource of additional questions to ask starting here.
Finally, just because there are no curbs, or because the venue is legally ADA accessible, doesn’t mean your event is safe for a wheelchair user. We recently attended a presentation on Accessibility in Travel, where a wheelchair user described being assigned to stay in a hotel where she couldn’t open her room door by herself, from the inside. When asked, the front desk said she could call them whenever she wanted to leave her room. But what if there was a fire? Clearly, “just following ADA” is not enough. We all need to do more, such as spending more time evaluating the actual attendee journey through the space, not just checking off boxes.
Outdated concepts and wording
Sadly, this example of making guests feel excluded is still common. When attendees eagerly click on your event website, or registration form, is there anything there that would make them feel like this conference isn’t for them? One example I see often is titles on a registration form such as Mr. and Mrs. If all I see is Mr. and Mrs. as the choices, I feel left out because neither one describes me.
While many people use these titles, it’s true that “Mrs.” in our current society refers to marital status, and in a business setting, there’s no reason to ask women to declare their marital status. while leaving Mr. as the default for men, without any kind of denotation. Probably a whole dissertation could be written about why there is no version of “Mrs.” to denote a married man, in our society. What to do? A couple of ideas: Avoid titles altogether and instead, ask for first and last name, and pronouns. Or do all of the former and allow multiple choices and fill-in options for the title, such as Dr., Mr., Ms. or Mx.
Just like physical accessibility, online accessibility involves allowing everyone, not just sighted or hearing folks, the ability to enjoy your content and use your registration form. If someone with low vision, or a Blind or Deaf person can’t get to your registration form, then how will they attend? It’s a real problem and if your goal is to be inclusive and attract a diverse audience, you must consider disability. Thankfully there are lots of tools to make your visual content readable by a screen reader, so a person with vision disability can have it read to them. And vice versa – there are lots of tools to create captioned content for photos and videos, so hearing-impaired people can access your event sound content. One of the resources for finding these that we like is at MabelyQ – they’re a resource helping organizations improve access for people with disabilities. We recently took their course “Accessibility Made Easy“, and we realize we have a lot of work to do. Even looking at my own web theme at ejpevents.com, there is a lot that needs fixing, starting with text color contrast in my own, low-vision opinion. From adding alt text to photos, to using #CamelCase for hashtags, the resources out there have been useful and important to learn.
Online accessibility is also related to other ways of including everyone. By offering an online component of your event, whether it’s a selected number of livestreams or a full hybrid version, you’re making events more inclusive and accessible to attendees with a caregiving responsibility, such as mothers; the immunocompromised or at-risk populations who are still told to avoid large groups due to COVID; and those for whom traveling to an event would pose a barrier. Consider virtual or hybrid options to increase your attendee reach and inclusivity.
Excluding introverts and the neurodiverse.
This is something, as an event planner, I have struggled with for many years. As someone who gets energy from one-on-one contacts, and can feel depleted having to connect with many people all at the same time, I’ve realized over time that I identify as introverted. It’s common for me to need extra time to process information, to desire to skip small talk, and jump right into deep discussion of a topic. These might sound like liabilities in the workplace. On the other hand, what clients and colleagues stand to gain from these traits, is they receive more authenticity, well-thought-out opinions and guidance, and meaningful interaction. Glen Cathey, SVP of Digital Strategy and Innovation at the staffing agency Randstad, has a wonderful presentation about introversion at work called Introversion: The Largest Neurodiversity Category In Sourcing, Recruiting, Diversity and Inclusion. Unfortunately, because introverts are in the minority, our society and events tend to be built for assertive, “sociable”, and talkative people who have the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, leaving introverts (1 in 3 people) feeling left out and excluded. While introversion is not officially yet considered a category of neurodiversity, both Cathey and others, such as Sam Sheppard, advocate for including introversion as a part of any organization’s strategy to include the neurodiverse, and I agree.
And let’s talk about the more well-known neurodiversity identities, which are just as, if not more important, to accommodate at events if you truly want to work towards making events more inclusive. How do we serve those who are on the autism spectrum? How do we design for those with sensory issues or other neurodivergent traits?
What can you do? Learn, learn, learn, and then take action. We love the resource from GoogleXi called The Neu Project, which explores the topic of neurodiversity and helping create events that embrace all neurotypes. We recently heard Naomi Clare, one of the leaders on this project, speak at CMP Advance in New York, and she provided us with a Guide to Neuroinclusion which contains a wonderful A-Z toolkit of what you can actually do, starting now, on your path to making events more inclusive.
Affordability of events, in my experience, has only recently become part of the conversation of inclusivity. However, as a child of immigrants, and someone who identifies as “1st Gen” (being the first generation in your family to meet a major life milestone, such as going to college in the US), I’ve witnessed firsthand how affordability can be a real issue in attending events. While there has been some consideration of affordability at events, most often in community and nonprofit events, the affordability question is now being addressed by more corporate and business events as well. This is important when we think about the history of racial inequity in this country, and how financial and monetary resources, and paths to generational wealth, have been inequitably distributed or just outright stolen, removed, or legislated out of the hands of marginalized groups. This Twitter thread from Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an associate professor at University of Michigan, clearly outlines many of the major issues of affordability and events.
What can you do? Here are a few ideas and you’ll need to consider your event’s business model.
- Offer a sliding scale or path to reduced or free participation.
- Get sponsors to host scholarships or awards that come with a comped registration.
- Pay speakers the cost of their travel plus an honorarium, so you’ll have access to all kinds of talent no matter their financial situation.
Sometimes, stakeholders will say, “There isn’t a budget for this.” However, my experience is that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Consider how you’re apportioning your entire budget. Do you have budget for conference swag, luscious decor, or other items, but not a few scholarship or student/low-income registrations? Did you pick a venue that leaves you no margin? Why is that? Can you sharpen your event planner pencil and find a place for your priorities? Your budget will show what the goals and priorities of your event are. If inclusivity is one of those goals, you and your budget will find a way.
I hope you find this blog post helpful! EJP Events works to include many of these methods of thinking when we are working with our clients. If you find these methods would be helpful for your event, I hope you’ll reach out.